Marina Abramovic is Present(ly) in London

LONDON–Marina Abramovic tells really funny dirty jokes. Maybe it is because the self-proclaimed grandmother of performance art has made a career out of timing, but she tells her jokes—too racy to print—with great delivery and panache. This summer at London’s Serpentine Gallery, audiences will get a chance to interact­­—and just maybe hear a joke— with the 67-year old Belgrade-born New York-based artist during her new durational performance “512 Hours.” She says this she is very nervous about the show, because it’s just her and the audience, with no props like a table and chair that she had during her 2010 MoMA performance, “The Artist is Present.”

It was in part that performance and specifically her surprised reaction when her former partner, the German artist Ulay, showed up at the table, which introduced her to a much younger audience when the video of that interaction became a hit on social media with over eight million views. The award-winning artist has also recently worked with Jay Z for his “Picasso Baby” video and taught Lady Gaga the “Abramovic Method” (a series of exercises to heighten physical and mental awareness), with the pop singer posting the video on Vimeo. Known for her intense, serious and oftentimes controversial work, including once using a razor to scratch a star into her stomach and for another performance ingesting pills that left her in a catatonic state, whatever happens this summer in London is certain to generate interest when the show opens June 11. Though Ms. Abramovic will be in London all summer—the Serpentine show closes August 25—retrospectives of her work are being held at the Center for Contemporary Art in Malaga (until August 31) and the  Kistefos Museet in Jevnaker, Norway until October 5.  She tells me to pop by the Serpentine and she will tell me a few more dirty jokes. I cannot wait. Excerpts:

I just came back from this incredible trip to Necker Island for a conference. Then went to Puerto Rico, was in NYC for 1.20 minutes and then change clothes, went to Madrid, then toMalaga and from Malago to Oslo and then Paris. Next is England for a long time. Once I had a record of 10 international flights in one week and I came to NYC and I went to the cinema and went to put on my safety belt over the seat and I thought, “oh my god, I am really lost. This time I went too far.” I leave next Wednesday for London.

I am so interested in always pushing boundaries and find something that is the most radical thing I can do.  I think it is important for people to know not be surprised that there will be nothing in the gallery. But it is really about how I can deal with the public as a live energy. This is what I tried to do in MOMA and many other performances.  But at the Serpentine I am the one who opens the gallery, I am the one closes the gallery. The gallery is my home. And when you arrive, you have to leave all your gadgets like iPhones and blackberries because people these days are now taking a picture before they even have an experience. They then go home and look at the material. So I want to see what we can do with the idea of presence.

Every time I wake up I think, ‘maybe I should do this or do that.’ I have props I may use, I may not. But I want to know from the moment I see people coming in to feel what is necessary to be done. And this is something that is radical and for the first time. And I want to do in England where art is such a huge commodity.

marina-abramovic-the-artist-is-present-470-75I really try to blur the boundaries between art and entertainment, fashion, music to see how we can move this energy everywhere. And somehow the young generation really react to that and my audience is that kind of audience.

I need to go to territories I have never been before and the possibility of failure is very big here for this show.  But if I succeed, I can create a completely new platform and raise the question of what are we doing with art in general. Art for me is just a tool to elevate the spirit and that is what is so interesting, how to do that. One critic said to me once ‘I hate your art’ and I said, ‘why?’ and he said, ‘you always make me cry.’ Because it is really emotional. Emotion is not something you can hang on the wall, it is all about feeling.

I have learned in the last 40 years that long durational work has the biggest power of transformation, because we live in a time where there is no time.  We need to slow down and slowing down is incredibly important.. At the [Marina Abramovic] Institute [which opens next year in Hudon, N.Y.] you have to sign contract when you arrive. You give me your phone and watches and spend six hours there. I am actually giving you time, the biggest present you have, to have time.

Lady Gaga asked me to teach her the Abramovic Method, which I did. And she had this huge following of over 65 million on Fcaebook, it is incredible.  No artist has this. So whatever she does, people follow. So her being connected to my Institute, it is an unbelievable help.

If I listened to criticism in the early 1970s, I would not be where I am now. I came from a group of six of us, I was the only woman. All the other five artists stayed in ex-Yugoslavia. But for years and years you do not get any support and you do not leave the country, you just kind of absorb all this melancholy and depression and that is so sad. It breaks my heart. So you have to follow your own intuition and own beliefs.

f you say to yourself, you want to be an artist, you sure are not an artist. This is like the wrong question. It is not, “I want to be” –you are. It is like breathing, you do not question breathing, you have to create. You have to really obsessed by your own ideas and you have to not follow any kind of fashion, you have to go on your own intuition. If young kids want to be an artist to be famous and rich, it is the wrong thing because that is a side effect, not a reason. Performance artists have to be born with something. You can learn technique but you have to be born with charisma. And then you have to know if you are a painter, a sculpture or if you want to work with film, but you have to know which tool is the best to express. It is lot of work and lots of sacrifice, otherwise you are nowhere. It is like you are obsessed, like you have a permanent fever.

I was at Necker Island with Richard Branson and I asked him, ‘is it possible to pay just half a ticket so I can go to space and stay there, so I don’t need a return.’ He is still thinking about it. He did not say yes. This is definitely something I want to see is how it is up there. I am one of these things where you say no to me, it is just the beginning.

I have been working for the last four years going on research trips to Brazil, going to different shamans and visiting nature formations of rocks and waterfalls and volcanoes because I learn everything from nature. I like to connect with nature, to get ideas. New York is a place I never get ideas, I do not get ideas in cities. And then I come back to New York and kill myself to do them.

From the moment I start performing, it is paradise. It is hard, difficult but then you are entering a different state of consciousness. It is incredible. I have a lot of things to in London to set things up and when I start, everything starts. I am not answering phone calls, I am just inside the piece and that is incredibly satisfying. That moment of happiness is overwhelming, I would do anything for that.

I am not marriage material that is why the husbands leave me, because I am impossible. I understood that art is my purpose in life.

Marina-Abramovic-with-whi-006Performance art has huge potential. We have not even explored half of it. It has unbelievable potential. You know what is incredible in the UK, nevermind that Damian Hirst made diamonds cool or that  Chinese young artist He Xiangyu made an egg that is real gold. Why do we need to have the most expensive materials? What are you buying? Are you buying gold, diamonds or art? That is the big question to me. Performance is so pure and so immaterial.

I am doing a film on James Franco, which I as editing. I made something like a seven minutes trailer, which it pretty interesting. And then I started working on the Serpentine so we had to postpone the film, this is something I will go back into it.

I am also working on a project called “Seven Deaths,” which is do with Maria Callas and women dying in the opera as in every opera a woman dies in the end. Strangled, poisoned, burned, tuberculosis, jumping from the cliffs, whatever, so I am asking seven different directors to direct in the last 10 minutes of dying. This is what I want to do, repeatedly, seven deaths, with real filmmakers. I have asked Roman Polanski, Pedro Almodovar, Marco Brambilla and others. Like one will be done in a subway, completely contemporary, some will make in costumes, so many different ways a woman can die.

I am a sentimental thing, I do something radical and then something really baroque, just to kind balance everything. You have to know something about me, I show everything to the public, I show my vulnerability so that is why I have such an audience because I am never showing one side of me, I show a side I am ashamed of, a side that is ridiculous, all kinds of things. And lots of humor about yourself, that is really important.

Part of this interview appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Off Duty section